Hypocrisy infects condemnation of terror

In yet another of his sermons on the “evil ones,” President George W. Bush bluntly proclaimed nearly two weeks ago, “(i)f you harbor terrorists, you are terrorists. If you train or arm a terrorist, you are a terrorist. If you feed a terrorist or fund a terrorist, you’re a terrorist, and you will be held accountable by the United States and our friends.”

There was nothing particularly original in Bush’s pronouncement, as it echoed similar statements of his since the United States began bombing Afghanistan in October. It has, in fact, become rather typical of the president – like others before him – to define the international system as a simplistic world of good and evil.

Yet Bush’s speech was quite noteworthy in one important respect: its timing. The president delivered his remarks just three days after thousands of people – military veterans, clergy, students, professors, trade unionists, and others – gathered at the gates of Fort Benning, Georgia, to call for the closure of the U.S. Army School of the Americas, this country’s own terrorist “training camp.”

Renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation this past January, the institution has trained military personnel from Latin America since 1946, when it first opened its doors in Panama. The SOA was forced to relocate to Fort Benning in 1984, after the Panamanian government decided it no longer wished to host what had become unaffectionately known as “La Escuela de Asesinos” – the School of Assassins.

The SOA’s graduates include some of the hemisphere’s worst human rights violators, such as General Hector Gramajo of Guatemala, the Salvadoran death squad leader Roberto d’Aubuisson and General Manuel Noriega of Panama. Among the SOA’s largest contingents today are troops from Colombia and Mexico – states that both have deplorable human rights records.

In 1996, it was disclosed that, from 1982 to 1991, Army intelligence instructors as well as manuals at the school advocated the use of execution, torture, extortion and blackmail to counter the opposition of insurgents and dissidents in Latin America. In a truly Orwellian employment of language, those targeted by these measures were referred to as “terrorists” and “subversives” rather than what they actually were – priests and nuns, peasants, indigenous leaders, union organizers, democracy proponents or human rights activists. Indeed, one of the SOA manuals identified some “masters of terrorist planning,” specifically naming Tom Hayden (founder of Students for a Democratic Society and, later, California state senator) as one such individual.

Against the backdrop of the current war on terrorism, one might have expected considerable media coverage of the protest against the SOA. After all, many of those who have called for the school’s closure – numerous members of Congress, over 170 U.S. Catholic bishops (including eight archbishops) and one of its former instructors – consider the school a training camp for state-sponsored terrorists throughout the hemisphere.

Contemplate, for a moment, what sort of media coverage would have accompanied thousands of Muslim clerics, Afghani veterans, educators, and students nonviolently demonstrating outside an al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan? If dozens of these protestors were arrested and imprisoned, how would they have been characterized? As ignorant malcontents? Or as heroes? When approximately 8,000 to 10,000 people gathered outside Fort Benning on Nov. 18, the media coverage was virtually nonexistent, just as it has been for the 70 or so activists who have collectively spent over 40 years in prison for acts of nonviolent civil disobedience against the SOA.

Only a handful of major newspapers across the United States even bothered acknowledging the demonstration. For most of these newspapers, this meant a brief wire service report.

The Washington Post’s coverage totaled two sentences, one of which noted the protestors “blame (the SOA) for alleged human rights violations against Latin American civilians.” It seems, for the Post, even the uncontested reality of millions of noncombatants killed, tortured, disappeared or dislocated throughout Latin America – including 200,000 slaughtered by U.S.-backed forces in Guatemala in what an official truth-commission report characterized as “genocide” – should be treated as little more than an allegation. For what it’s worth, the truth commission report specifically listed the U.S. training of Guatemala’s officer corps in counterinsurgency techniques as having “a significant bearing” on human rights violations. Moreover, the commission reportedly “found evidence that the United States had knowledge of genocide and still supported the Guatemalan military.”

For The New York Times, the country’s newspaper of record, the protest two weeks ago was apparently unfit to print; it was never mentioned. On television, ABC alone covered the event, devoting three sentences to the story. NBC, CNN, Fox, and CBS didn’t find it newsworthy, although CBS did report several days later an extremely pressing matter at the same site: It seems officers served turkey with all sorts of trimmings to enlisted men and women. Revealingly, the CBS coverage of people eating at Fort Benning was about twice as long as ABC’s coverage of the thousands protesting there just days before.

Returning to Bush’s definition of terrorism, it should be clear to any rational observer that the president has scripted his and his predecessors’ own indictment. When the United States trains and finances Colombian troops who murder noncombatants or collaborate with the paramilitary units that have ravaged much of the country, Washington is financing and training terrorists and those who harbor them.

When the United States trains Indonesian troops in “foreign internal defense” to stave off the “threat of instability” posed by “students, church people, and political activists,” as a July 1998 investigative report in The Washington Post determined, it is training terrorist forces responsible for thousands of civilian deaths in Aceh, Irian Jaya, East Timor, and elsewhere in the Indonesian archipelago. And when the United States provides billions of dollars and much of the weaponry used to perpetuate Israeli terror in the Occupied Territories, which Amnesty International recently detailed in a major study, it is arming and funding terrorists.

Of course, it would be naïve to expect, say, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, Nicaragua or Sudan – all of them subjected to unlawful military action by this country – to launch an invasion against the United States. It is only Washington’s unparalleled military power that allows the government to reflexively exercise its will however and against whomever it pleases. Yet it is nothing but hypocritical to denounce “their” terror while denying or willfully ignoring “ours.”

If we are serious about eliminating terror, and not just anti-American terror, then a symbolic first step would be to finally close the School of the Americas.

Scott Laderman’s column appears alternate Tuesdays. He welcomes comments at [email protected]. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]